USS Pueblo veterans seek 'ship swap' for the return of Navy spyship
By BILLY COX | The Sarasota Herald-Tribune | Published: June 12, 2019
SARASOTA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — When the U.S. announced on May 9 that it had seized North Korea's second largest cargo ship for violating sanctions, Rick Rogala of Sarasota had an idea that no doubt occurred to his fellow former prisoners of war:
Let's trade that ship for the USS Pueblo.
"The Pueblo shouldn't be a propaganda museum," says Rogala, who, along with 81 other shipmates illegally captured by North Korea on Jan. 23, 1968, spent 11 months imprisoned by the communist regime. "It should be back over here, because people need to know the history."
More than 51 years after the Pueblo's seizure, America's confiscation of North Korea's "Wise Honest" freighter is stirring dim hopes for an exchange among the 60 survivors, thanks at least in part to a symbolic Congressional resolution introduced in the House on Wednesday. Like so many Americans, sponsor U.S. Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, knew little about the incident until Rogala pulled him aside following a county veterans' meeting in May.
"Rick brought it to my attention, I looked into it, and it was a surprise to me that, over all these years, we had done no work to get the vessel back," says Steube, an Army veteran. "And if you know the facts, they're appalling."
The outgunned, 345-ton, 177-foot Navy spy ship was running an electronic surveillance mission for the National Security Agency in international waters some 14 miles off the North Korean coast when it came under attack by gunboats and warplanes in 1968. One crew member was killed and 10 others wounded in the melee.
Most of the POWs, including Rogala, were beaten and placed on starvation rations during the ordeal. But because the U.S. was bogged down militarily at the height of the Vietnam war, no retaliation was forthcoming. The crew was released in December 1968 after America was forced to admit to committing "war crimes."
Named for a city in Colorado, the Pueblo has been a cause celebre in the Rocky Mountain State ever since. Within hours of the announcement of the capture of the "Wise Honest," Sen. Cory Gardner, chairman of the Senate subcommittee on East Asia, began tweeting for a ship swap. Colorado Rep. Scott Tipton, who introduced a symbolic resolution last year similar to Steube's, echoed the senator's idea.
"Perhaps the return of the USS Pueblo and the remains of U.S. service members and the return of the North Korean ship could be a first step for North Korea to show their commitment to progress," Tipton stated.
Although Steube says he raised the Pueblo issue with the State Department following his chat with Rogala, he says putting a ship-swap discussion on the negotiating table is an entirely different discussion. He hopes the resolution, which charges North Korea with a "violation of international law," will be largely educational, given that most Americans weren't around when the Pueblo was hijacked.
Prior to President Trump's Memorial Day summit in Japan, National Security Adviser John Bolton fired up the old crew members by telling reporters "Maybe now would be an appropriate time to talk about return of the Pueblo." But no high-level statements have been issued since.
Given the symbolic value of the Pueblo to the Kim dynasty, it's almost a tossup to imagine what the North Koreans would part with first, the ship or its nuclear arsenal.
"I'm excited, but I'm not really optimistic because it's been so long," says Rogala. "But, hey, it's worth a try, and maybe this is a start."
Sixty of the Pueblo's original 83 crewmen are still alive.